The nature of challenges teachers face in using the Malawi Breakthrough to Literacy (MBTL) course to teach initial literacy to standard one learners in Mzuzu, Malawi

The nature of challenges teachers face in using the Malawi Breakthrough to Literacy (MBTL) course to teach initial literacy to standard one learners in Mzuzu, Malawi
Vera Chihana & Dennis Banda

Literacy is at the core of educational experience and is an essential key to success in educational endeavors (Farris, 2004). For n this reason, the government of Malawi through the Ministry of Education introduced a mother-tongue literacy course called Malawi Breakthrough to Literacy (MBTL) course in the year 2005. This was aimed at improving the literacy levels that were reported to be very low. Despite this profound intervention, literacy levels continue to be low. Much that there might be other causal factors leading to the low literacy achievements in the process of using the MBTL course, teachers are not exceptional. They might be encountering challenges in the process of teaching initial literacy to standard one learners using the MBTL course. The challenges teachers face when employing this literacy course, could be a factor towards the persisting low literacy levels.
Therefore, the current study sought to investigate into the possible challenges teachers who teach standard one learners face when using the Malawi Breakthrough to Literacy (MBTL) course to teach standard one learners. Particularly this study, which was carried out in the year 2010 and 2011, examined the nature of challenges teachers encounter which hinders the successful acquisition of initial literacy skills like reading and writing. It further provides recommendations which might minimize the challenges as established by this study which was conducted in Mzuzu, a commercial city, in the northern region of Malawi.
It was a case study and it utilized both qualitative and quantitative research designs. The combination of the research designs was to gain an understanding of the matter being investigated and to get a deep insight about the nature of challenges teachers face when teaching initial literacy. The research methods used in the study were: questionnaires, lesson observations and interviews. In collecting data, questionnaires, lesson observation guides and semi-structured interviews schedules were used.
The population of the study comprised of all teachers in Mzuzu who teach standard one learners using the MBTL course and all head teachers. All these were from government primary schools where the course is implemented. The sample comprised of forty teachers and ten head teachers.
The findings established that teachers are facing various challenges to teach initial literacy skills using the MBTL course. Analysis of questionnaires, interviews and lesson observations, revealed that the nature of challenges range from familiar local language of initial literacy teaching, teaching and learning materials and methods as well as classroom management.
The study further established that the course has very good features and strategies that can help teachers to teach initial literacy skills effectively. However the conditions in which the course is implemented are unfavorable. The unfavorable conditions present teachers with various challenges in using it to teach initial literacy skills effectively and efficiently. Consequently these challenges could be a factor leading to the low literacy levels in Malawi that are reported by the media and researchers.
In view of the findings the study therefore proposed the following recommendations that would minimize the challenges being encountered by teachers when teaching initial literacy skills; there is need to revisit the language policy of initial literacy teaching and learning, provision of sufficient and suitable teaching and learning materials, a need for a comprehensive in-service training for all teachers on how to use materials and methods of MBTL course as well as an improvement on the teacher-pupil ratio and the school infrastructure among others.
Literacy is basically understood to be the ability to read and write. The issue of literacy development has been an area of inquiry that has gained wide spread interest of late. Malawi, like other African countries are facing great challenges in the development of literacy, more especially in the early years of formal education. In an effort to improve literacy rates that have always been reportedly low, the Ministry of Education introduced a mother-tongue language and literacy course called MBTL in the year 2005 in all government primary schools. The course is basically designed to develop initial literacy skills. It was piloted in two districts before it rolled to all government primary schools.
The Education system in Malawi follows an 8-4-4 structure comprising eight years of primary school, four years of secondary school and a minimum of four years of tertiary education levels. Primary education is divided into three sections; infant (Standard 1 & 2), junior (Standard 3, 4 & 5) and senior (Standard 6, 7 & 8). When Malawi attained independence in 1964, the government elevated Chichewa out of the other 16 languages, to the level of national language as well as school subject to be learnt from standard one onwards in all government primary and secondary schools. In the same year English was chosen as the official language for communication in public administration, business and commerce and education. It was also to be taught as a subject from standard one onwards. In 1996, the government through the Ministry of Education (MoE) reviewed the language of instruction policy and introduced the use of mother tongue as medium of instruction from standard one up to four (Ministry of Education; 1996). Chichewa and English remained national and official languages respectively and also as school subjects. The policy stipulates that in standards 1 to 4, a dominant familiar local language of the area where the school is located, be used as medium of instruction. The review of the language policy in 1996 at the lower primary school level was aimed at improving literacy rates. The policy still stands today. The familiar local language is also used to teach initial literacy skills for the MBTL literacy course that was introduced six years ago.
However, despite the policy review in terms of language of instruction and other innovations the MoE had put in place, research reports of low literacy levels among primary school learners persisted (Williams 1998; SAQMEC 2001; IEQ 2003). In addition, studies by Chilora (2001) revealed that many learners could not read and write both in Chichewa and English by the time they completed standard 2. The reports recommended that there was need for appropriate strategies which could be used to raise the levels of literacy acquisition in primary schools. Hence the introduction of MBTL course in the year 2005.
Breakthrough to Literacy (BTL) is a Molteno’s unique mother-tongue literacy course for primary schools, based on learner-centered and language-experience approaches. The course systematizes the Language Experience Approach to the mother-tongue, utilizing the oral skills the child brings from home to the classroom as the basis for learning to read and write. These oral or listening and speaking skills are basic to successful learning, and they constitute a starting point in the teaching of literacy through the Breakthrough methodology. Breakthrough to Literacy builds on these skills to develop reading and writing skills. Thus it uses the language experience approach.
Breakthrough to Literacy is originally a British course which was designed in the early 1960s’ and launched in the 1970s’ to help young children acquire early reading and writing skills (Horner, 1972). This intervention was initially designed to prepare teachers through short courses to assist children with special education needs and who could not read and write in the early school years. In Africa, Breakthrough to Literacy was first developed by a South African nongovernmental organization called Molteno Project in 1998 and later spread to other African countries including Malawi. In Africa, local languages are mostly used to teach literacy skills to young children when they begin formal education. The breakthrough to literacy approach to teaching contends that learners be taught how to read and write in their familiar local language.
In Malawi the course was initiated as part of an innovation of the new curriculum known as Primary Curriculum and Reform Assessment (PCAR). In standard one, an hour is set each day to teach learners how to read and write easily and accurately in their familiar languages. The most familiar language used in Mzuzu is Tumbuka which teachers are supposed to use to teach. This helps learners to see in printed form, words that they use in their everyday talk. They realize that what they read is something familiar only that it is presented in a different form. This makes MBTL course, a language experience approach to teaching reading. The teacher starts with what learners already know, their spoken language, to what is to be known, a written word.
A class is set in such a way that learners are divided into four groups with a group leader each and the entire first term work focuses on introducing learners to school life and learning. This is divided into three units namely; orientation, promotion of sensory motor development as well as games, plays, songs and dances. It is in the second and third term when teachers begin the actual teaching of learning how to read and write.
Research design
It was a case study and the unit of study was a group of teachers who teach standard one learners using the MBTL course. The study used both qualitative and quantitative research. This was aimed at enhancing an understanding of the matter being investigated.
The study population
The target population of the study consisted of all teachers who teach standard one learners using MBTL course as well as administrators of primary schools in Mzuzu district.
The setting
The setting of this study was government primary schools in Mzuzu town, northern part of Malawi. Ten primary schools formed the study’s case. Within each school, the study was interested in teachers who teach standard one learners and this obviously meant that standard one learners were part and parcel of the population of interest. Other key actors within the primary school such as head teachers were also considered as part of the population since they play an important role in supervising, guiding and directing activities of the school.
The sample
The sample for this study consisted of 40 teachers teaching standard one learners using MBTL course and 10 head teachers; one from each school. These respondents were selected from 10 out of 37 government primary schools in Mzuzu district. Each of the school had an average of four standard one teachers.
Sampling Procedures
Random and purposive samplings were used in the study. 10 schools were randomly selected from the 37 schools. Purposive sampling was used to select teachers who teach standard one learners using the MBTL course. 10 head teachers, one from each of the ten randomly selected schools, formed part of the sample.
Research Instruments
The following three research instruments were used to collect data from teachers and head teachers:
1. Questionnaires:
Questionnaires were administered to all the 40 teachers. They helped gather the general information about the teachers’ challenges to teach initial literacy skills using the MBTL course. It was used as a long interview guide. The information captured lead to sources and areas to be interviewed and observed respectively. This instrument had both closed and open ended questions.
2. Classroom observation guide:
This instrument helped to provide first hand information about the real classroom situation and practices. Further, it helped in understanding the teacher behavior patterns and the challenges faced in the physical and social classroom context. Observations were only on few teachers/lessons; teachers who were observed are the same ones who were interviewed.
3. Semi-structured interview guides:
These were of two types: The first type was for the teachers who were interviewed as a follow up to classroom lesson observations. This helped to clarify matters that had risen from observations as well as questionnaires. The second type was for head teachers who were also interviewed to verify on the challenges teachers encounter with regards to their teaching of initial literacy skills using the MBTL course.
Data Collection Procedures
Data was collected between January and March 2011. Procedures involved were as follows: Questionnaires were administered to all the 40 teachers. Secondly, lesson observations were conducted to 10 teachers, one from each school but on separate arranged days. These teachers were selected from the forty teachers who answered the questionnaires. The selection depended on the responses given by the teachers and other characteristics relating to the research objectives. Teachers who were observed teaching were also interviewed soon after the lesson. Head teachers were interviewed on the days the classroom lesson observations were made.
Data analysis procedures
SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Science) was used to analyze questionnaires and simple statistics in form of frequencies and percentages were run for data interpretation. Data was then fused into the data collected through lesson observations and interviews. This was because questionnaires were purely used as long interview guide. Data from lesson observations and interviews were analyzed by identifying common themes and categories with respect to the study objectives. Later all data were linked by making contrasts and comparisons. Thereafter interpretations and conclusions were made.

The study established the following major findings as nature of challenges teachers face when teaching initial literacy skills using the MBTL course. The challenges are related to language of initial literacy teaching and learning, MBTL teaching/learning materials and methods, training, time constraints and classroom management;
 Challenges with language initial literacy teaching and learning.
Teachers are teaching in areas where language for literacy teaching is very unfamiliar for them to use for teaching. Furthermore, learners are not of the same language background. Above all, the texts used are in Chichewa when most of the learner’s familiar language is Tumbuka. This kind of arrangement where there are differences in the familiar language used to teach between the teachers, the learners and the text books has brought pedagogical challenges for most of the teachers.
 Challenges with the teaching and learning materials.
The course is supposed to have MBTL kit that is specifically designed to teach initial literacy skills. However, teachers do not have all the necessary materials for teaching the way they were trained. Instead the materials that are available and are used by the teachers are text books, posters and flip charts which are not enough to effectively assist in teaching all the necessary skills step by step as recommended by the course.
 Challenges with MBTL course methods
The study also established that teachers are not adequately equipped with knowledge about the course methods to teach initial literacy. This is due to inadequate time that was set for training that resulted into teachers not to be sufficiently equipped with all the needed knowledge and skills to teach the literacy skills using the MBTL course.
 Challenges with MBTL lesson management
The other established challenge teachers encountered was in terms of managing all the four groups during the literacy hour lesson. This was because of over enrollment in almost all the classrooms where lessons were observed. This led to the management of learners in an MBTL lesson too involving and quite difficult for a single teacher especially when the class has low achievers who require individual attention.
 Challenges related to content
The MBTL class arrangement and content to be covered are in such a way that it is not easy for teachers to follow. It has an assumption that learners will be present in class all the days of the week, month and year. Missing one lesson means the teacher has to find some extra time to cover the work to those who were not present as the next day the teacher has to cover new work. Teachers always panic in the way they teach because there is no time for those learners lagging behind. One hour per day for four days a week, has been proved not enough to effectively teach initial literacy skills. There are a lot of activities to be done within the one hour period for all the four groups hence lack of sufficient time for revision and individual help. Time allocated for literacy teaching does not match with the amount of content to be taught. This problem is aggravated with many learners per group per class.
 Challenge with over enrolment when using the MBTL course.
The study further established difficulties of teaching literacy skills in overcrowded classrooms. Most of the classrooms have over 70 learners making it difficult for the teachers to provide individual support, constructive feedback and to employ necessary literacy skills when teaching. This is aggravated with understaffing and absenteeism in many schools which means more work for teachers who already have a lot to do in order to successfully help learners acquire initial literacy skills.

In view of the established challenges the study further suggested a number of recommendations that might minimize or eliminate the challenges encountered by the teachers. They are as follows:
 The policy on language for initial literacy teaching and learning should be revisited on its practicability so that there is mutual understanding between teachers and learners in the teaching and learning process.
 The system of teacher deployment by the Ministry of Education, should take into consideration the teachers familiar language in relation to at least that of the learners. This is more specific with those teachers trained to teach initial literacy skills using the MBTL course.
 Teachers and stakeholders who participated in the MBTL course training should be involved in developing teaching and learning materials so that the materials are appropriate and sufficient for teaching initial literacy skills. Teachers should be sensitized on the need to improvise their own materials as a whole school initiative rather than the prescribed texts and materials only. This will also ensure production of the materials in abundance instead of translating the Molteno materials that brings about copy right problems.
 Furthermore, a comprehensive training of teachers is needed for the MBTL course program to be successful. Teachers will only do better if they are highly and properly trained and oriented for the MBTL course to teaching initial literacy. In addition, intensive in-service training should be conducted frequently to assist teachers gain adequately the required skills and knowledge needed to develop initial literacy skills in the young learners. Local nationals, who are experts in initial literacy teaching, should be given utmost priority to conduct in service trainings for the ongoing MBTL course. However guidance and technical expertise from other literacy experts other than the locals are also needed to support the reforms.
 In terms of time allocated for teaching literacy, which is one hour per day, there is need for additional time due many learners per class. This could be possible, for instance, if actual teaching of initial literacy should come as early as first term so that there is enough time to spread the work in all the three terms of the school academic year.
 The role and involvement of head teachers in the improvement of teaching literacy skills should extend from administrative to instructional leadership. Head teachers need to take strong leadership role at the classroom level to ensure compliance to concepts and practices of the literacy reforms. They should provide guidance and support in addressing the challenges teachers face when teaching initial literacy skills. In addition there is need for a great improvement of both internal and external monitoring and evaluation.
 In terms of over enrolment and overcrowded classrooms, the Ministry of Education, stakeholders and communities altogether need to construct more classroom blocks to create more space and reduce the overcrowding in classrooms for the successful implementation of MBTL course methods. In so doing, it will be easy for MBTL teachers to teach effectively using all the necessary MBTL course methods.
 To balance up the teacher-pupil ratio, there is need to train more teachers in order to give teachers time to attend to individual learners as well as those with learning problems. This will reduce time spent on classroom management to actual teaching. In addition, teacher training schools should provide an explicit, relevant understanding of initial literacy skill teaching and learning.
 Adopting programs wholesale is not an effective way of which to some extent, is the case with MBTL course. Flexibility, applicability and ample time should be given priority when adopting these literacy programs. The conditions have to be favorable and conducive for the successful implementation of the program, otherwise, all the effort would be in vain.
The study based on the objectives and findings concluded that there are many challenges that teachers encounter in their teaching of initial literacy to standard one learners using the MBTL course. The challenges are in the nature of familiar local language for teaching and learning, teaching and learning materials and methods as well as classroom management. The challenges could be minimized or eliminated if necessary and favorable conditions could be put in place. However, it requires a strong cooperation amongst all the concerned players like teachers themselves, head teachers, PEAs, Institute of Education, Ministry of Education and the Government of Malawi together as a team to minimize the challenges that teachers are facing in their noble job of teaching initial literacy to standard one learners using the MBTL course.
Many thanks to my supervisor Dr Dennis Banda and other lecturers on Literacy and Learning programme for their support during the entire study period and particularly research work. I do not forget all the head teachers, teachers and learners who were involved in this study, for without their cordial assistance, this research work, would not have been completed.
Chilora, H.G. (2001). Investigating the Role of Teachers Home Language in Mother Tongue Policy Implementation: Some Evidence from some IEQ Research Findings in Malawi. A paper presented at the Comparative and International Education Society Conference in Washington D.C, U.S.A, March, 2001.
Chiuye, G. (2009) Comparative Studies of Recent Literacy Programs Piloted in Malawi and Mid-Term Evaluation of Beginning Literacy Programs in Malawi. Centre for Research Studies, Zomba: University of Malawi.
Farris,G.,(2004). Assessing Learning Literacies. Hershey, PA: Idea Group
Horner, L.(1972). Teaching Children How to Read. Washington DC. National Institute of Literacy
Mchazime, H.S. (1996). Use of Mother Tongue as a Medium of Instruction in Malawi: A Paper Presented at the International Seminar on Language in Education, at Cape Town, South Africa.
The Daily Times (Malawi’s Premier Daily), Friday, September 10, 2010


About Sitwe

Sitwe Benson is a citizen of the world based in Zambia. He publishes academically oriented articles.
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